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Corsets, class warfare, and picky critics: Julian Fellowes reveals the secret history of Downton Abbey

Screenwriter Julian Fellowes in front of Highclere Castle
Screenwriter Julian Fellowes in front of Highclere Castle Credit: Andrew Crowley

A couple of years before he proposed Downton Abbey, award-winning television producer Gareth Neame was flicking through the channels on his TV when he stumbled across Upstairs Downstairs, the Seventies British drama series about an aristocratic family and their servants.

Neame, about 40 at the time, had never seen the programme; he assumed the generation below him would never have seen it either. Not long after, while visiting Lanhydrock, a country house in Cornwall, he noticed that the servants' quarters were incredibly well preserved. Slowly, the idea for a new show began to percolate in his mind...

The glint in Neame's eye would go on to become one of the most spectacularly successful British TV shows of all time. Hundreds of millions of pounds in merchandise revenue; Emmies, Baftas, Golden Globes; an average of 11 million viewers per episode; an army of devoted fans. A period drama about the Crawley family and their servants, who live and work in a country estate in the early 20th century, Downton Abbey has become the jewel in ITV's crown, running for six series and two Christmas specials and making stars of its enormous cast – Jim Carter, Joanne Froggatt and Michelle Dockery.

But before all that, the show needed a writer. Neame had got to know Julian Fellowes by this point - working to adapt his novel Snobs for the screen - and had so liked Gosford Park, Fellowes' Oscar-winning film script of 2001, that other period dramas felt inauthentic by comparison.

The pair met outside a London restaurant they both liked. But the gas at the restaurant wasn't working and the men had to look elsewhere. “I remember it was absolutely pouring with rain,” says Fellowes. “So we looked around and because it was soaking, and neither of us had an umbrella, we just jumped into the nearest open restaurant and ended up in the basement, eating sort of semi-Lebanese food crossed with God knows what. I can't name it because it was a terrible restaurant.”

Fellowes took some persuading; he thought it would be “like asking for a second helping in some way”. “And then,” says Neame, “I said, 'I think you might make a lot of money out of it.' And so there was a slight flicker of the eyebrow, and he said, 'Well, let me think about it.'” A fortnight or so later, Neame opened a Word document from Fellowes in which he had written detailed breakdowns of the majority of Downton Abbey's main characters. Neame realised Fellowes had probably been living with these characters for quite some time.

Neame took the idea to ITV. At the time, partly because the 2008 financial crash had just happened, the feeling within the industry was that there was no market for lavish period drama. But Peter Fincham, then director of television at ITV, didn't believe this and championed the show, even turning up to the first cast readthrough. The refreshing thing about Downton was that the team had free reign to tell whatever stories they liked because the show was not based on original literature. “Julian and I wanted Downton to really revolutionise the genre,” Neame says. 

Given that it was the entire title of the show, the eponymous country house had a heavy responsibility to shoulder. It was 2009 when series producer Liz Trubridge called production designer Donal Woods. In a sentence that has not aged well, he said, “Liz, it's one year after the global crash – who's going to watch this?” He and the team started visiting country houses, looking for The One. “It needed to have its own presence, its own voice, its own character,” Wood says. 

The dining room of Highclere Castle Credit: Heathliff O'Malley

“Julian and Emma [Fellowes] are longstanding friends and came to stay,” says Lady Carnarvon, who owns and lives in Highclere Castle, “so it happened firstly because of good food and good wine and good conversation.” Fellowes had had Highclere in mind for Gosford Park. “It is a very proud house,” says Fellowes. “Proud of its noble lineage; proud of the British aristocracy. Since I knew that inevitably Downton Abbey must be about the decline of the aristocracy to a certain extent, it seemed to me quite humorous to do it against a backdrop of total belief in the worth of aristocracy.” The team visited about 40 other options but Highclere, a Jacobethan-style country house in the north of Hampshire, was The One.

Before Downton, Highclere had played host to around 30 weddings a year, including Katie Price and Peter Andre's in 2005. As it has grown to become synonymous with the programme, the “pie chart of business has changed,” says Carnarvon. “It's given us a marketing platform for our own endeavours, which is jolly useful.”

When it came to casting the show, Jill Trevellick needed no persuading. She told Neame, “If you get the casting right, I think you're looking at a huge hit here.” It was a dream to cast, she says, because the characters were all so clearly defined. She thinks that everyone apart from Penelope Wilton, Hugh Bonneville, Matthew Goode and Maggie Smith auditioned. “I think we almost thought, 'God, do we have the temerity to ask Maggie Smith to do this?'” Smith was a movie star. “Even 10 years ago,” says Trevellick, “you didn’t really have movie stars doing television very much.” She needed to know more about the kind of company she would be keeping; the fact that actors like Bonneville and Wilton were on board was reassuring. At the beginning of January 2010, after a few weeks of sitting on the fence, Smith finally came aboard to the role of Violet Crawley, the matriarch of the house.

Dame Maggie Smith in season four Credit: Nick Briggs

Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs Patmore, remembers arriving at Ealing Studios to talk through her scenes with Brian Percival, who directed the first episode. Someone said that she should probably meet Sophie McShera, who would be playing Daisy, the kitchen maid whom Mrs Patmore would take under her wing in the kitchen. “I looked down the corridor,” Nicol says, “and I saw this young girl in what I can only describe as a trailer-trash coat – and I had exactly the same coat on. I thought, 'Well, I think we might be OK here.' I loved Sophie from the minute I met her.” 

In the first week of filming, historical consultant Alastair Bruce lined up the downstairs staff in order of hierarchy and explained precisely how their relationships would have worked. Michael Engler, who directed several episodes of the final season as well as the upcoming film, remembers having to talk to Bruce about how they might, for example, depict a covert glance or word between two characters, if etiquette dictated that those two characters had to sit miles apart at a dining table.

As well as the formal etiquette, the objects in the show needed to be convincingly Edwardian. Woods asked his team to do research on what postage stamps looked like; what size the letters were; what the ink was like. “There's a lot of people who are very keen enthusiasts in railways,” he says. “I actually got caught out on one of the Christmas specials – a slightly wrong engine. Someone wrote in about that.” 

And the authenticity had to extend to costume. Phyllis Logan, who plays housekeeper Mrs Hughes, says that to begin with the women donned corsets that had been worn in the early 20th century – “although gradually, as the seasons wore on, they kept falling to bits”. A corset isn't necessarily a joy to wear: “It's almost worth putting it on for the sheer relief of getting it off at the end of the night,” she says.

Highclere Castle's main hall

“When you're making the first series,” Fellowes says, “you don't have any idea that it will be successful. You have to complete it in the dark.” He needn't have worried: the first episode pulled in 9.25 million viewers and, in a pattern rarely seen on TV, the second pulled in 9.97. “That meant everyone who watched the first episode came back and they also told all their friends about it,” Neame says. A week after the first episode aired, journalist Rachel Johnson said, “I don't mean that in a Downton Abbey sort of way” on the radio. Neame realised they had created something bigger than just a TV show.

The original plan for Downton, says Trevellick, is that it would run to three series. “And then it kind of became obvious that the series really had more legs than three.” It became the biggest hit in PBS's 45-year history. Universal said that it was as good as any American show, and charged the same amount for it as they did for House. This set the agenda for the huge growth in British drama over the past decade. “It's inconceivable,” Neame says, “that shows like The Crown would have been commissioned on Netflix without the Downton story.”

While all of the postage stamps were painstakingly accurate, how accurate was the human history? Dr Lucy Delap is an academic historian who has written extensively on domestic labour. “The servants seem surprisingly and sometimes unconvincingly interested in the lives and the dramas and the affairs of their employer,” she says. “It's as if the people upstairs are celebrities in a period when celebrity culture barely existed. And that's true the other way as well: in Downton Abbey we kind of get employers who are rather fascinated with their servants, who get the voyeuristic kick out of wanting to know about the life of the kitchen maid. Did great house employers want to know about their kitchen maids? No, of course they didn't.” She says that emotionally the programme is “totally wrong”.

"Totally wrong": employers' interest in their kitchen maids Credit: Jaap Buitendijk

I ask Fellowes how he feels about criticism of the show. (AA Gill wrote that Downton “represents everything I despise and despair of on British television: National Trust sentimentality, costumed comfort drama that flogs an embarrassing, demeaning and bogus vision of the place I live in”.) Fellowes says, “When people criticise a show like Downton, it often says more about them than it does about the show.”

I ask him if he has any time for the idea that people who like to depict the Downton era on screen - often through rose-tinted glasses - are nostalgic for a more conservative time. “I think being nostalgic about other periods of time is rather pointless, to be honest. In the end we're all creatures of our own time, whether we want to be or not. And we all get used to the blessings of our own time.” He says that through the show he also made an effort to convey how miserable certain things were during that period: “The death penalty; the fact that people could lose their job without any comeback at all; the fact that people were living on very very low incomes indeed – you'll find all those in different Downton stories.”

Neame believes that tall poppy syndrome meant that there were some negative British reviews at the beginning of series two. But he also describes this stage as the happiest moment in the production of the show. He remembers watching Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery filming a scene on a station platform in which Mary bids farewell to her partner Matthew as he leaves for the trenches. “The two actors just played it so beautifully,” he says. “It was so exquisitely written; filmed; John Lunn's score over that scene is just one of the most beautiful pieces of music. Something said to me then, this show is going to last for all time, actually.”

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in season four Credit: ITV

I ask Lunn about his now-infamous theme music. “People wanted what they call a modern score,” he says. “And quite often people don't really know what they mean by that. In many ways the actual harmony of the theme tune is almost much more like a pop song than it is like Elgar or Vaughan Williams, but it just has a veneer of classicism because we're using a piano and a string orchestra and there's a French horn in there.” An accomplished pianist, Lunn recorded the theme tune with a 35-piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. Throughout the six series he struggled most with conveying humour. “If I watch a Carry On movie now, for instance, I do actually appreciate the music a lot more.”

After the show had run its course, the final scene had been shot, and the cast had left Highclere for the last time before the film, the whole team had a party at the Ivy. “We were all dressed up to the nines,” says Logan. “We were all floating about; people danced; sang; had too many drinks.” As the party blurred into the early hours, everyone huddled about Lunn at the piano and asked him to play tunes from the show. “I probably made up some of it,” he says. “It was two o'clock in the morning and we'd all had bucketfuls of champagne. It was an unbelievably unforgettable night.”

Why has Downton became such an astonishing global success? Neame was asking himself that question while in Shanghai, collecting an award. Driving on the freeway into the city, he realised that there were four lanes, and that one was a fast track for members of the Communist party. He'd noticed the same system at the airport as well. He realised that in China they too have a class system and a hierarchy.

Around 160 million people in China watched Downton, a sign of its phenomenal success. Lesley Nicol realised just how gargantuan the show had become on a trip to China where she visited a rural bear bile farm and met the farmer – and he was a Downton fan.

Some have a stab at explaining the show's success. Almost all single out Fellowes' writing as crucial. “It both makes servants of the family as much as making family of the servants,” says Engler. Fellowes takes “every character wherever they fall in the social strata equally seriously in terms of their potential for honour, their potential for dignity, their potential for humanity, fulfilment, intelligence, courage...”

While Fellowes' writing was critical, so many other things needed to go in the show's favour for it to take off in the way it has. In the end, however, it may be pointless to speculate. “The truth,” says Nicol, “is nobody really knows.” 

Downton Abbey is in cinemas from September 13